Latest Rexton makes giant quality stride but retains Ssangyong honesty
You can turn away now, states Iain Robertson, if your transport diet is governed by (at least) hybrid technology and definitely not diesel, but if you want downright dependability and do not mind a heavy-handed design, this Korean might meet muster.
Ssangyong is the car brand that firstly was unpronounceable and secondly nobody wanted. It was born during South Korea’s earliest vehicle export drive, when we all thought that Hyundais and Kias might satisfy the bargain basement niche, with modest model ranges and equally modest pricing. If we knew then, what we know now, we would never have concluded that the Korean motor industry would soon be scaling the heights.
Ssangyong was not first to the table but, when it arrived, it was abundantly clear that its aspirations were far from heady. In design terms, early Ssangyongs were either heavily inspired by oriental dragons, or, thanks to an association with Mercedes-Benz, they wanted to snap at the heels of the better engineered alternatives, at a really low entry price. As a result, while Merc engined and geared, their interiors left a lot to be desired in western terms, with an over-abundance of brittle plastics and poor tactility.
Even drawing on the services of British stylist, Ken Greenley, (for the Musso SUV) did little to raise expectations. Being acquired by the ill-fated Daewoo did nothing for the brand’s survival and being marketed in the UK through Bob Edmiston’s International Motors Group, which was still enjoying early Subaru and Isuzu successes, was a virtual kiss-of-death. After knocking on the door of dissolution for the second, or maybe even the third time in its existence (intriguingly while it was owned by Chinese manufacturer, SAIC), Indian conglomerate, Mahindra and Mahindra, snaffled up what was left but managed to remarket Ssangyong with a modicum of commercial success, into what it is today. It cost M&M a modest $463.6m.
However, Mahindra filed for bankruptcy in December last year, having defaulted on various loans, which has left Ssangyong in limbo and places a major question over the value of its seven years, 150,000mls warranty. Having contacted the UK head office for the brand, which is based in Swindon, to ask questions about which company now owns it, the evasive responses suggest that nobody knows! I can only presume that it has a stockholding of Ssangyong models, as the UK company is also promoting the imminent appearance of its first EV this summer. It is not confidence inspiring. Naturally, shutting down vehicle production, with the company’s finances hanging in the balance, is not an instant task but this can hardly be described as a good time to secure a rescue bid.
As to the new Rexton, which has always provided the acceptable face of Ssangyong, it is markedly different to the previous generations. In fact, were you to give an A3 sheet of art paper to a modestly talented 13-year-old and request that he/she draw a large SUV, the new Rexton would result. It possesses a good street presence, fronted by a large Hyundai-esque ‘shield’, with chromed starry highlights. The body is slab-sided and tall, even riding on 18.0-inch diameter alloy wheels that look a little lost in side-on elevations. The temptation to fit 20.0-inch alternatives may prove compelling on the aesthetics front.
Powering it is a 2.2-litre turbodiesel, with its roots most Teutonically tinted. The fairly raucous four-cylinder unit develops a moderate 199bhp, accompanied by 325lbs ft of torque, which is more than enough for tree stump pulling, or transporting up to seven people confidently across broken ground. It emits 225g/km CO2 and can return around 32.9mpg, while accelerating from 0-60mph in 11.6s, to a top speed of 112mph. Driving through the same eight-speed, electronically actuated (fly-by-wire) automatic transmission that is used in larger Hyundai and Kia models, progress is smooth and unruffled, even verging on stately, but there is no manual option.
The Rexton’s 4×4 system defaults to the rear axle as a means to reduce running costs, engaging the front electronically, when the going gets rough, or conditions demand it. It has a selectable high-low transfer ’box. Rexton has always impressed with its towing capacity and the new version lives up to expectations thanks to a kerbweight of just over 2.1-tonnes and a 3.5-tonnes maximum trailer weight, which also provides the main clue for its less than electric performance envelope.
To be fair to Ssangyong’s engineers, the aim was to produce a truly tough and resilient vehicle, which explains its larger than anticipated weight penalty, as it relies on a sturdy body-on-frame construction. There is space on-board for up to seven seated occupants, in a 2-2-3 arrangement and an enormous boot area otherwise, when the rear and middle rows of seats are folded cassette-like into the floor.
Two trim levels, Ventura and Ultimate, feature on the new Rexton, with respective price tags of £37,995 and £40,665. It is worth highlighting that the previous generation model started at almost £10,000 less than its replacement, which is a sobering fact that needs to be supported by significantly better build quality and higher-grade materials. Sadly, you can tell that some of the mouldings fall behind par, although there will be few issues with most of the touch surfaces within the cabin, as they are of Japanese quality of 12-15 years ago, which suggests that Ssangyong is getting there slowly, even if the pricing suggests it might have arrived.
Equipment levels are good and better (dependent on either trim level), with up-to-date connectivity and ADAS needing little further explanation. The digital dashboard is a bit limited in its scope, although the central touchscreen is quick to react and competent for the most part. There is plenty of room in the cabin, which includes loads of practical slots, pockets and trays for paraphernalia.
Conclusion: From its 60-strong UK dealer network, Ssangyong might be onto a good thing. The product is honest and does what it promises in its packaging. However, with a chequered past and a questionable future, it might be too great an ‘ask’ to have any confidence in a new Rexton. Or it might be that its PR is just crap.